Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

25493853At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

I cannot even begin to tell you how hopelessly I have fallen in love with this book. I mean, I am going to try but it might just sound like loving nonsense. I am okay with this, as long as you know that I love it. I’ve already mentioned this book on here before, and I am almost certain that I will be mentioning it again.

Just thinking about it makes me feel warm.

So, as written in the blurb above, The Bear and the Nightingale tells the story of Vasilisa (or Vasya as she is commonly referred to), an impish Russian girl who lives and breathes the old stories in more ways than one. I love Vasya. I love that she is not pretty. I love that she is gangly and frog-like and her eyes are large and that she likes to climb trees. I have taken Vasya into my heart and I am going to cling to her for the rest of my days.

I love a compelling main character, and Vasya is that. She has a set of beliefs which she values over all but she also has respect for her family, even when they are cruel to her.

Speaking of cruel, I love it when a book gets me to react and, boy, did I react. I wanted to strangle Anna, Vasya’s stepmother, and Konstantin, a priest. Every time they were horrible, every time they were being ridiculous, I found myself shouting a little at the pages (luckily I read this book from the comfort of my own sofa and not on public transport). But I wanted to strangle them for all of the right reasons, I wasn’t supposed to like them. It is a powerful and talented author who can get you to react visibly and audibly, and I bow down.

I find Konstantin particularly apt in the current political climate – he wants people to be afraid. I couldn’t help but compare what Konstantin was doing with what is happening in the real world. Even though The Bear and the Nightingale is steeped in fantasy, I couldn’t help but relate it to my current view of the world.

One of the central themes in the book is the clashing of the old and the new, the old stories, the chyerti with Christianity. The old gods and spirits with the new, and how village life can fit into that. It looks at the roots of its people and pulls them from the ground, only to tentatively put them back again. We learn about all of the various spirits that keep the world turning, the grass growing, the houses protected, and we learn about them both from the perspective of someone who wholeheartedly puts their faith in them, and someone who fears them. It’s so interesting to see both sides, even if one side makes you want to throw something.

It’s a slow burn. The Bear and the Nightingale takes its time and revels in the storytelling. It is in no rush to end but everything feels essential. It’s not heavy-heavy action but it’s not dormant either. It grows into itself as Vasya grows into herself, it is a journey in and of itself.

I just love it so much. I want to shout out to the world, I want to command the world to read this book and love it and take it into their hearts.

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